For the fourth year in a row, before we head off on our summer holidays armed with an overly ambitious stack of reading material, we asked our cool friends to share their beach read recommendations with us.
Forever rallying against the narrow notion that a beach read has to be frothy and light, we asked for whatever their interpretation of a good beach read is. For some that translated into a meaty non-fiction tome packed with scientific facts, for others it’s pure escapism. We wanted to hear about them all – the only proviso was it had to be a pukapuka they’d actually read, finished and enjoyed this year.
Behold, eight highly recommended books to lose yourself in this raumati. And if you’re after even more reading recs, see our beach reads from 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Bird Life by Anna Smaill
As recommended by Jonny Mahon-Heap, journalist.
Here’s a word: uncanny. Bird Life by Anna Smaill is an uncanny accomplishment, a unique, stark novel about unravelling minds, the city of Tokyo, and the power of Loewe. I began reading Bird Life on an idle Sunday evening and was blindsided by a masterwork, cementing Smaill’s status as one of our greatest living writers. Smaill, a trained violinist, and Booker Prize longlister, exerts minute attention to scale and tension only a classical musician could perfect. At times, the book’s wild and unruly leaps into the unknown made me feel like I was no longer a part of the human race – that Smaill had tuned into some special frequency only a few could understand, into that place that can only be described as the uncanny.
I’ve read Bird Life twice now, and could use those adroit terms you normally find on book covers to persuade you about it – describing it as “propulsive”, “exquisitely written”, “emotionally raw” – and they would all be true. But they somehow don’t capture the way Small’s writing has wormed itself into my mind in such a way that certain sentences still arrive unbidden, at times when I am not expecting them, but, possibly, need them. As a beach read, it will issue gooseflesh across your arms on summer’s hottest day–the highest possible praise. A book for anyone who knows what it means to touch the sides of reality and return changed.
Big Fat Brown Bitch by Tusiata Avia
As recommended by Courtney Sina Meredith, poet, playwright, and executive director at Rainbow Youth.
I’ve had a year of 5am starts reading the news on radio which I’ve loved, but it’s meant that most of my reading has been news related and after helping my son with his reading before bed I’d be asleep! Of what I’ve managed to read within a very full life – I loved the conversational charm and courage of ‘A Canoe Before the Wind’ by Vitale Lafaele, and the equally harrowing and heroic ‘Big Fat Brown Bitch’ by Tusiata Avia. Otherwise my heart goes to the Palestinian poets braving the depths of humanity and writing through it – my dear friend Alice Yousef has shared such tender verse. I’m also looking forward to having more time for my own writing over the break, with half written manuscripts, and handwritten poems.
An Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
As recommended by Ellen Falconer, product designer and writer.
My version of a beach read is usually something non-fiction, because at the beach I often get too distracted by people- and dog-watching, or messaging long-distance friends, to be able to stay focussed on the plot of a fiction novel.
Earlier this year I read An Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake while I travelled Italy on my own. Sheldrake’s deep dive into the fungi world was the perfect accompaniment to the mushroom risotto I had at a trattoria in Milan – although I sometimes found myself wishing I had someone to share my newly acquired little fungi facts with. He’s a brilliant writer, merging a narrative style deftly with scientific facts so that it never feels too dense, or like you’ve picked up a university textbook.
The List by Yomi Adegoke
As recommended by Lara Daly, Ensemble publishing co-ordinator.
I’m trying to read more contemporary authors, and this one was recommended to me by my bestie Flora who loaned me her copy to take on holiday.
Ola, a high-profile journalist at Womxxxn magazine, is marrying the love of her life in one month’s time. Young, beautiful, successful – she and her fiancé Michael are the ‘couple goals’ of their social networks and seem to have it all. That is, until one morning when they both wake up to the same message: ‘Oh my god, have you seen The List?’
It began as a crowdsourced collection of names and somehow morphed into an anonymous account posting allegations on social media. Ola would usually be the first to support such a list—she’d retweet it, call for the men to be fired, write article after article. Except this time, Michael’s name is on it.
Juicy right? As you can probably tell, this really is the perfect beach read – a bit gossipy, a generous font size, makes you think (but not too much). I usually like books that completely take me away from online life, but this one deals directly with the messiness, cringe, and very real repercussions of social media, through following someone getting ‘canceled’ from so many different perspectives. Highly recommend it. Also – they’re making it into a TV series!
True Grit by Charles Portis
As recommended by D.C. Maxwell, singer.
When a fourteen-year-old girl’s father is shot dead by an ugly, whining criminal, she takes it upon herself to track him deep into outlaw country to avenge her father’s blood.
So begins True Grit, a rollicking western about young Maddie Ross, a stern presbyterian moralist and wannabe bounty hunter. Through the course of the tale, Maddie holds her own against sly merchants, haughty Texas Rangers, and bloodthirsty outlaws alike.
Maddie’s partner in the quest is the cantankerous drunkard Rooster Cogburn, a has-been gunslinger fallen on hard times who nevertheless possesses the True Grit needed for the task.
The story, told from the now-elderly Maddie’s point of view is like having an up-tight, religious grandmother, tell the wildest story you’ve ever read. This book is both a romping adventure novel and unbelievably funny, I recommend it to everyone I can!
The Old Place by Bobby Finger
As recommended by Rebecca Wadey, Ensemble co-founder.
As a huge fan of Bobby Finger’s brilliant pop culture podcast Who? Weekly I was delighted to find a housesitter with excellent taste (cough, Tyson Beckett) had left this at my house when I returned from holiday earlier this year. Turns out Tyson hadn’t actually read it so I got the first jump and I devoured it. Anyone who obsesses over Who? Weekly will have a preconceived idea of what this book is like. I thought it was going to be a light, frivolous and perhaps snarky read but it turned out to be an achingly beautiful look at, plot twist, the sometimes complicated friendships between older women. Set in small town Texas, where Bobby grew up, he’s painstakingly created a world so immersive and real I still can’t believe it’s written by my favourite podcast. It’s gripping, evocative and utterly memorable in unexpected ways. The perfect beach read. Highly commended: The Women in Me by Britney Spears, The Guest by Emma Cline.
Family Meal by Bryan Washington
As recommended by Jeremy Hansen, author and director, communications and community at Britomart Group.
Thinking about beach reads makes me think about good bookstores and how much I love them. You’d think my social media feeds would be full of ads for books I might like to read, but algorithms have a narrow view of the world. Good bookstores are expansive: every time I browse the shelves of one, I come away with a title that takes me places I had never thought about going. This year my bookstore browsing led me to Family Meal, Bryan Washington’s latest. Set in Houston and Osaka, it’s good on so many levels – matter-of-factly queer, full of pain and heartache but also a redemptive hope. The writing is cool and elegant, but also full of affection and compassion. I’m a fan!
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
As recommended by Zoë Gibbs, Someday Studios pr director.
A literary gem that I always come back to is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. While this recommendation might be telling of my time living in a yoga school in India and my love of philosophical books.. It’s an easy, insightful and feel-good read that will make you feel like you’ve spent thousands at a retreat.
While I love the escapism of a juicy fiction, the summer break is an opportunity to start the year right, and this book is the ultimate reminder to be present. It’s been a wild year, so I can’t wait to revisit my favourite pages and start 2024 feeling cool, calm and collected.